07/30/2015 06:18 EDT | Updated 07/30/2016 05:59 EDT

Whale entanglements increasing off B.C. coast

Fisheries and Oceans Canada says four whales entangled in fishing gear have been rescued off the B.C. coast in the past five weeks.

Entanglement can be a death sentence for whales if netting prevents them from breathing and feeding.

But in some cases, whales can go on for months or even years dragging along the gear before someone spots them and calls for help.

"The latest disentangled we did was off Carmanah, it was a young animal and in very poor shape. It had difficulty getting to the surface to breathe," said Paul Cottroll, marine mammal coordinator for Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

Baleen whales like grey and humpback whales can find themselves tangled in a variety of gear, including long line and crab gear.

Cottrell and his team rescued a young humpback whale off Carmanah Point, near the southwest coast of Vancouver Island, on July 24 who was in distress after being entangled in longline fishing gear. 

Cottrell believes the gear came from an American boat.

"It's an international problem," he said.

Cottrell says the success rate of saving the animal is very high if they are able to locate it and cut the gear off.

Public sightings of whales in distress plays a big role of the department's success rescuing whales. People are encouraged to call the marine mammal hotline if they see an entangled whale, and if possible, to stay with the animal until rescuers arrive.

But Cottrell warns boaters to not engage with the gear or the animal. Whales, no matter how majestic, can be extremely dangerous he said.

"You have to have a great understanding of whale behaviour to know when the animal is tired and it's safe to go in."

Cottrell says the increased reports of humpbacks running into problems with fishing gear may be a sign that the population, classified as threatened, is growing.

"The humpback population has been increasing which is fantastic. What we're seeing is these animals moving into inshore waters which they used to inhabit which is great," said Cottrell.

As for the whales, they do not understand that people are trying to help during the rescue effort, according to Cottrell.

"I've never had an animal that cooperates at all. They're trying to get away as fast and hard as they can."

People who spot a whale tangled in netting can call Fisheries and Oceans Canada's marine mammal hotline at 1-888-465-4336.